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MIT startup makes machine for blazers on demand
Jun '17
Courtesy: Ministry of Supply/MIT
Courtesy: Ministry of Supply/MIT
A startup, Ministry of Supply, founded by MIT students, has launched fashion industry’s first machine designed to 3-D-knit personalised blazers on demand. The machine spits put a blazer in about 90 minutes that stays at the store a couple of days for finishing touches, eliminating about 30 per cent of the fabric waste of traditional cut-and-sew methods.

According to the startup, launched in 2012, customers can plug blazer customisations - such as size, and yarn, button, and cuff colour - into a computer at the machine, a 10-foot-long printer set up near the checkout counter of Ministry’s Newbury Street headquarters. An image appears on an interactive display, and modifications can be made on the fly. Inside the machine, four beds with 4,000 needles each pull yarn to knit the garment.

Ministry of Supply, a Boston-based innovator of high-tech fashion, has been co-founded by Gihan Amarasiriwardena with other MIT clothing tinkerers. The company has developed a rapidly growing science-based clothing line and the industry’s first 3-D robotic knitting machine.

Ministry of Supply collaborated with the manufacturer, Shima Seiki, to “hack” the machine to make blazers, by using thermoset yarn that shrinks to size, among other innovations. The first 3-D-knitted garments were sold out in a day, and the machine has since become popular with customers.

“The mission and vision of this company is inventing apparel. It’s very MIT in that regard. Instead of hacking code, we’re hacking fibres,” says Amarasiriwardena, who co-founded Ministry of Supply with MIT Sloan School of Management students Aman Advani and Kit Hickey, and mechanical engineering alumnus Kevin Rustagi.

Having last year expanded nationwide, both online and to nine retail locations, Ministry sells about 100,000 products annually, ranging from aerospace-tech dress shirts to socks that use coffee grounds to mitigate odour.

As a boy scout and frequent camper in high school, Amarasiriwardena sought to make better outdoor clothing and gear. To make a waterproof jacket, for instance, he laminated fleece onto flimsy trash bags. Soon, he graduated to sticking ripstop - material used for rain jackets - onto a more breathable housewrap material he grabbed from construction sites. He’d also run Mylar, a material used for thermal blankets, through his parents’ paper shredder and stuff the strips into the lining of his sleeping bag so it would reflect any heat back to his body.

“It was these small hacks that made me think I would someday start an outdoor gear company or performance material company,” Amarasiriwardena says.

But when he started studying chemistry and biological engineering at MIT, and was biking daily, he experienced a major problem: There were no performance dress clothes. “The performance gear I wore wicked away moisture, and kept you cool and dry, but didn’t cut it when it came to looking sharp. I realised there’s a big opportunity to take technology to clothing that we wear for 12 hours a day, when we’re not at the gym or on the mountain,” he says.

Supported by MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI) and Sports Technology Education at MIT, Amarasiriwardena spent two summers at the Sports Technology Institute at Loughborough University in England, where he and other researchers conducted clothing stress-strain analyses. Sticking sensors on test subjects’ chest, back, and dress shirt, they tracked how the skin and material stretch. They noted lateral stretching at the top of a person’s back where, on traditional dress shirts, there’s a straight, inflexible seam. “You can imagine someone hunching over bike, while biking to work, and the material not stretching,” Amarasiriwardena says.

Back at his Phi Kappa Theta fraternity chapter room, Amarasiriwardena cut up running shirts and sewed them into wrinkle-free dress shirts. On the back, he added a stretchy, curved polyester panel that allowed for stretching. To the underarms, he sewed patches of odour-control material made of silver-based antimicrobial fabric. “It looked like a ‘Franken-shirt,’ but it did the job,” Amarasiriwardena says, laughing.

With Rustagi, a friend and mechanical engineering student, Amarasiriwardena began selling the shirts around campus.

In the fall of 2011, the duo set up shop in the Martin Trust Centre for MIT Entrepreneurship to make performance dress clothes. In a coincidence, they met a separate team that included Hickey and Advani, a trained industrial engineer with a similar hobby - he had cut off the bottoms of his dress socks and sewn on material from moisture-wicking running socks. Hickey and Advani’s team was making performance underwear, socks, and undershirts for professionals. “That’s the beauty of the Entrepreneurship Centre, which is kind of this intersection of engineering, design, and marketing and business coming together,” Amarasiriwardena says.

After coming together to form Ministry of Supply - named after the defunct department of the UK government responsible for designing and supplying equipment to the British armed forces - the team used similar temperature-regulating materials to invent the Apollo dress shirt for professionals.

“Riding the T in the summer in Boston, it could be 95 degrees. As your body temperature starts to elevate, the material will melt around your skin temperature, storing that heat in the shirt. When you get into an air-conditioned office, it freezes and releases that heat back to you,” Amarasiriwardena explains.

Since then, Ministry has opened nine stores across the country and developed a growing clothing line of pants, shirts, socks, and sweaters for men and women, made with the temperature-control technology, form-fitting material based on NASA spacesuits, and stretchable materials derived from Amarasiriwardena’s early experiments. A notable innovation was a line of socks with spent coffee grounds - residue obtained during the brewing process - mixed into the yarn for odour control. (SV)

Fibre2Fashion News Desk – India

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